Wichita A Kansas judge’s decision that an abortion doctor’s killer deserved more time in prison because the murder took place in a church didn’t surprise legal experts in this conservative Midwest state, and they said such a finding isn’t likely to be grounds for a reversal.
“In a state that is sort of a Bible-belt state where people take ... a lot of public reverence about religion, that would be something that would be very disturbing to people,” said Michael Kaye, director of Washburn University School of Law’s Center for Excellence in Advocacy in Topeka.
When District Judge Warren Wilbert sentenced Scott Roeder on Thursday to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 50 years, the judge cited a Kansas law allowing stiffer sentences in specific “aggravating circumstances,” such as stalking. The statute also permits longer prison terms for “any other conduct in the opinion of the court that is especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.”
“The question is whether being killed in a church is atrocious, heinous or cruel,” Kaye said. “Or is it simply outrageous? There are differences.”
Roeder, 52, was convicted of first-degree murder in the May 21 shooting of George Tiller as the doctor was ushering at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. The Kansas City, Mo., man also was found guilty of two counts of aggravated assault of two ushers who tried to stop him after the shooting.
Roeder testified at his January trial that he decided to kill Tiller at the church because he couldn’t get into other places, such as the doctor’s house in a gated subdivision and his heavily fortified clinic.
“The location chosen by the defendant to meet his need for access — with total disregard to the reverence that should be shown a house of worship — is in this court’s opinion heinous, atrocious and cruel,” Wilbert said.
The judge said a church was supposed to be a “place of peace and tranquility” and noted parishioners, including children, were confronted with a “horrific scene” as they left the sanctuary after the shooting.
A defiant Roeder told the judge during sentencing that he didn’t consider the building where he killed Tiller a church because the people there didn’t hold Tiller accountable for performing abortions. He called it a “synagogue of Satan,” saying its members embraced a “mass murderer.”
The church’s pastors, who attended the sentencing with Tiller’s family, didn’t return a message Friday seeking comment.
The judge also noted Roeder stalked his victim and planned the killing, aggravating factors that also justified the maximum sentence.
Even if the Kansas Supreme Court ultimately rules Wilbert improperly considered the church location as an aggravating factor, there’s enough other evidence, including the stalking, to support the longer prison term, Kaye said.
“When they look at error, they will have to weigh error in connection with all the other evidence, all the errors made, and I doubt they will come up with an error in that trial,” he said. “That was a pretty carefully tried case.”
Judges historically have a lot of discretion in sentencing, and it’s permissible for them to consider the context of a crime and its impact, said Richard Levy, a law professor at Kansas University.
Levy also said he didn’t think an appeals court would overturn the sentence because Wilbert didn’t make any explicit references to religion in his ruling.
“It is not because the church has some particular status as hallowed ground per se,” Levy said. “But the aggravation is the collateral damage that is being caused to people who are at the church in the disruption of their spirituality.”